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New Port Richey council member ensnared in research facility's zoning dispute

NEW PORT RICHEY — Judy DeBella Thomas is in a bind.

She is the marketing and enrollment liaison for Advanced Research Institute, a clinical drug trial company that recently opened its Congress Street facility without the proper zoning, over the warnings of city officials.

She's also a City Council member who took an oath of office to observe, "in all respects," the city's charter and ordinances.

After a council meeting Tuesday evening, DeBella Thomas refused to discuss anything involving ARI, which received a written warning May 4 that it is operating outside the proper zoning — a violation of city code. City officials gave the business 14 days to resolve the matter or face a $500 citation.

"I just work for them. I have no control over any day-to-day operations," DeBella Thomas said.

Still, her dual roles complicate the controversy.

Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe expressed disappointment that ARI opened its doors without the proper zoning, and said it "certainly doesn't look good" that DeBella Thomas is on the council and working for ARI while the facility is in violation.

"It sets a bad precedent, particularly with a council member as their employee," Marlowe said. "It creates a perception, real or not, that they are getting some kind of special treatment."

The zoning controversy has been brewing for months. ARI signed a lease in January for the property at 6716 Congress St., which previously housed the Harbinger House for troubled boys. ARI officials thought they'd found the perfect fit: The building had private rooms that could accommodate patients requiring overnight stays for the clinical drug trials.

But the site was zoned for residential use. The city's attorneys said ARI is a clinical laboratory that needs office zoning.

Code enforcement officers red-tagged the site in March for renovations being done without a building permit. After that dustup, DeBella Thomas sent an email to City Manager John Schneiger calling for a resolution to the larger zoning dispute, "as this is a target industry for us to have at this site."

ARI attorney Barbara Wilhite sent an email urging city officials to amend their ordinances to allow a medical research facility in the existing zoning. City officials refused, saying the company needed to apply for a rezoning.

It's unclear when the business officially opened its doors, but on May 4, code enforcement officers issued a written warning to ARI for running the business without the proper zoning.

ARI CEO Susan Randall said she does not plan to close as they work to resolve the zoning issue with the city. She said she's in a bind, too: Her landlord refused to sign off on a rezoning application, and she had medical trials already lined up.

DeBella's involvement with ARI warrants "someone looking long and hard" into Florida's conflict of interest laws for public officials, according to Tampa attorney Richard Harrison, who is certified with the Florida Bar in government law and an adjunct professor with Stetson Law.

"That's pretty brazen, it seems to me," Harrison said of DeBella Thomas continuing to work at ARI while also sitting on the council.

It remains unclear whether the city will look into the matter. City Attorney Mike Davis declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.

Schneiger said the city attorney's office is aware of the situation, but he would not be seeking their input on the matter.

"I'm sure if they saw anything they would say something. The issue is between the city and the business. She's an employee," Schneiger said of DeBella Thomas.

"If she was a partner in the business, then that might be a different story."

New Port Richey council member ensnared in research facility's zoning dispute 05/16/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 8:03pm]
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